The Frontstretch: "Pursuing Younger Fans?" That's The Marketing Department's Job by Kurt Smith -- Thursday July 1, 2010

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I read with interest Scene Daily’s recent interview with Lesa France Kennedy, the CEO of the International Speedway Corporation that owns the tracks that make up about a third of NASCAR’s schedule. Kennedy is the sister of NASCAR CEO Brian France, as you all well know, so one would expect them both to have similar approaches to running the sport.

Kennedy did make a point in the article that made sense. When asked about NASCAR’s core fan base being older and how NASCAR can appeal to younger fans, she replied, “You can do both…provide a good guest experience and a good product on the track, that’s going to appeal to everyone overall.”

That sounds like a blinding flash of the obvious. But what that says, in a nutshell, is that you don’t need to change the formula to appeal to a younger audience…hardly a business model that NASCAR has followed in recent years. They still can’t seem to simply let things be for long, even if they’re making some more palatable adjustments these days.

Running a successful business is about making customers happy and keeping them happy, regardless of the demographic. It generally isn’t rocket science. Want to attract new customers? Provide a good product. Want to keep the customers you have? Keep providing a good product.

You may have seen the bank commercial recently where an adult is not allowing a kid to have ice cream, but at the same time happily giving another kid a big scoop because he’s “newer.” And the narrator says, “Even little kids know it’s wrong to treat new friends better than old ones.” But that’s exactly what NASCAR did, and now they are, as Kennedy readily admits, trying to win back the old friends.

With the departure of older fans depriving NASCAR of both their core and developing fan bases, the sanctioning body is now aKppealing in every way they can to bring old and new fans alike back to the track.

NASCAR assumed, like most in the entertainment industry, that the younger generation has a devastating ADD problem, and must be given short-term bursts of excitement at all times. (Thank God baseball doesn’t have this problem.) Most of the significant changes in the last decade have been geared to that mentality: green-white-checkereds, double-file restarts with lead lap cars, the Chase.

Take the logic a step further and NASCAR’s thinking must be that racing itself just isn’t enough anymore. So rather than leave the marketing of the sport to the marketing people, the sport chose instead to muck with the rules.

The Chase was the best example of NASCAR catering to an instant gratification mindset, a stereotype of a generation that can’t fathom life without the Internet. Six years later, articles are appearing with rumblings that NASCAR is once again considering “tweaking” the Chase.

It is insulting to both young and old NASCAR fans to keep insisting that this turd can be polished. Why does NASCAR think a younger audience will be any more accepting of a contrived, phony resetting of points late in the season? Why would a 25-year-old Jeff Gordon fan want to see his hero’s large points lead wiped out any more than a 75-year-old fan would? I don’t know that any particular demographic was any more or less copacetic with the questionable debris caution at Michigan. The Chase is the ultimate phony debris caution.

NASCAR, probably more so than most sports, has a core fan base of folks who have had their love of the sport passed down to them from their fathers. That is not something to be trifled with lightly, as NASCAR now knows. It means a great deal to people. I sense that the sport’s appeals to a casual, younger audience disillusioned a core base so much that the younger and newer fans became turned off with it, not tuning in anymore because Dad doesn’t tune in anymore.

Kennedy seemed like she was getting that with her quote about a good product on the track attracting fans of all ages. Then she began talking about how young people are more concerned with things like green initiatives today, and as a fan it makes you want to start beating your head against the wall again. How many young non-NASCAR fans would be watching every week if NASCAR would just mandate that the cars run on French fry oil?

Ten years ago NASCAR didn’t “tweet” updates or pursue Facebook subscribers or run ads on iPhones. And they were growing their fan base just fine. They replaced dearly departed fans with young ones just fine. They didn’t need to focus on a younger generation; it was getting on board. The audience was growing because there was a good product. The Bristol night race was once a spectacular event.

There are plenty of ways a younger audience can be reached without changing the entire format of the racing. The marketing folks have made a point to appeal to the departed longtime fan with commercials touting standardized start times and boys, have at it racing. There is no reason to think they can’t reach a younger crowd too. They could run ads with fathers taking sons to the racetrack or watching TV and rooting for rival drivers together. It wouldn’t be hard to do.

But no matter how the rules are altered to add to the excitement, some races are going to be better than others, and some championship battles are going to be better than others.

The whole point of some races being classics is that they stood out from all the rest. That is going to be the case no matter how many attempts there are to finish under green.

Contact Kurt Smith

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Carl D.
07/02/2010 07:50 AM
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Kurt…

That was the absolute best article about this subject that I have read.

I don’t think that, as a viable business, Nascar can ignore making occasional changes to the racing in order to improve it, but not major changes made solely for the sake of creating a temporary spike in the ratings.

One more comment I’d like to make… the Nascar brass constantly refers to their racing series as a “product” and we all know that it is, but I wish they’d refer to it more often as a “sport”. It seems like a small thing, but it might help in assuring the fans, old and new, that it’s not always all about the money. They need to stop talking to us like we’re another sponsor for them to court and start talking to us like what we are…. fans of the sport.

motorman
07/02/2010 10:06 AM
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Younger people do not drive Impalas they drive Camaros and Mustangs. The fake Mustangs to be used in the Nationwide race will not attract those fans.

DoninAjax
07/02/2010 10:31 AM
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Let the people who go to the track see a “race”, not an “event” with a contrived finish.

Don Mei
07/02/2010 10:32 AM
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Im afraid I have to disagree with you motorman. I’m a professor at a state community college in Connecticut and there aren’t very many Mustangs and Camaros in the parking lot as was the case when I went to college. Lots of Honda Civics, Subaru WRX, Nissan, Mitsubishis, etc. Thats what young people drive nowadays. Make of it what you will insofar as Nascar is concerned but thats the reality.

wingcars6970
07/02/2010 12:12 PM
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I have to agree with Don Mei. I would also like to add that these “fake” Mustangs, and I suppose Challengers are about 30 billion miles ahead of the “perfume on a pig” car in Cup right now. I say shame on Chevy for not bringing in the Camaro and Toyota for not coming up with something better than the Camry.

The Mad Man
07/02/2010 02:10 PM
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As NASCAR owns the Grand Am Series and they do run Mustangs, Challengers, and Camaros that look like the street versions, how hard would it actually be to make the Cup and Busch Series cars look like their street counterparts?

As to the “product”, you have a sanctioning body that manipulates the races and admits to it, favors certain teams and brands of car, and you have a VP for Racing Operations saying it’s sports entertainment. Sports entertainment is what professional wrestling is. So if the “product” is the wheeled equivalent to professional wrestling, then why is it still referred to as a sport?

If you want to get butts in the grandstands and raise the TV ratings back up, then give the fans something that resembles what’s being driven on the streets, make racing and not marketing the priority, and quit manipulating the races with phony debris cautions, lug nuts that are missing then aren’t missing, speeding penalties on cars that aren’t speeding, and keeping the rules, penalties, and their enforcement consistent across the board.

Keith
07/02/2010 08:59 PM
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Brian France and his marketing people have it totally wrong. You never turn off your core fans to attract new ones. Who brings the new fan to a race a core fan does. My grandfather who went to races since the early 1930’s took me to my first Nascar race the 1979 Daytona 500 when I was 15 and I was hooked there was no marketing or gimmicks involved the track action was what has made me keep going back. I never would have even thought about Na$car racing being from Philly except for him taking me. You also don’t dumb down your product to teach the new fans things you let us do it I get real annoyed hearing the same thing on TV each week when they explain the sport to the new fans. If you want to attract new younger fans have a web site with all the details about the sport and rules and the cut away car and what all the terminology means and mention it once in a while during caution periods during the race. During the race tell us about the on track action only. I don’t want to hear jokes and informertials about the announcers teams and sponsers. Then when your new fan becomes a core fan he will also enjoy the racing.

Clueless France
07/03/2010 11:33 AM
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The true state of the “sport” will be revealed when Rick Hendrick and ‘Ole DW are inducted into the HOF next year. That ought to bring those core fans back by the millions.

Mike
07/03/2010 11:57 AM
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“The Chase is the ultimate phony debris caution.”

That has GOT to be the ULTIMATE line of the past 10 yrs! Bravo!

Contact Kurt Smith